"Fire is motion / Work is repetition / This is my document / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all defenses."

- Cap'N Jazz, "Oh Messy Life," Analphabetapolothology

Thursday, September 01, 2011

"tantalized" by mythology!

i was reading East of Eden today during my lunch break when i caught a reference to Tantalus, from Greek mythology. East of Eden is a book i've been (re?*)reading because i thoroughly enjoyed it in high school, and living in the same setting where the story takes place imparts a magic realism to the story that makes it read even more like history than fiction. furthermore, i am convinced Steinbeck and i would have been besties if we just got the timing right. **although now that i'm actually nearing the end of the book, i'm not even positive i finished it the first(?) time i read it.

anyway, lucky for me, i had quick access to a computer and Wikipedia, and was able to read up about Tantalus. what a cute story!

In mythology, Tantalus became one of the inhabitants of Tartarus, the deepest portion of the Underworld, reserved for the punishment of evildoers...

Tantalus was initially known for having been welcomed to Zeus' table in Olympus. There he is said to have misbehaved and stolen ambrosia and nectar to bring it back to his people, and revealed the secrets of the gods.

Most famously, Tantalus offered up his son, Pelops, as sacrifice. He cut Pelops up, boiled him, and served him up in a banquet for the gods. The gods became aware of the gruesome nature of the menu, so they didn't touch the offering [...] The Greeks of classical times claimed to be horrified by Tantalus's doings; cannibalism, human sacrifice and infanticide were atrocities and taboo.

Tantalus's punishment for his act, now a proverbial term for temptation without satisfaction (the source of the English word tantalise), was to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches. Whenever he reached for the fruit, the branches raised his intended meal from his grasp. Whenever he bent down to get a drink, the water receded before he could get any. This fate has cursed him with eternal deprivation of nourishment. [source: Wikipedia]

From Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell":
I dare say you have heard of Tantalus? The wicked king who baked his little son in a pie and ate him? He has been condemned to stand up to his chin in a pool of water he cannot drink, beneath a vine laden with grapes he cannot eat. This wine is made from those grapes. And, since the vine was planted there for the sole purpose of tormenting Tantalus, you may be sure the grapes have an excellent flavour and aroma-and so does the wine. [source]

this was a fantastic learning moment for me: i never knew the word "tantalize" came from Greek mythology, and furthermore, i had no idea we've been misusing/altering the word from its original intended meaning. i've always heard "tantalizing" used to mean "supremely appealing" or "tempting," neither of which pay due homage to Tantalus's situation of being perpetually and torturously out of reach of what he wants.

i thought about how a story like this would have been great to share with students if i were still teaching; it would be a powerful mnemonic device to help them remember the meaning of the word "tantalize." the imagery is great, albeit a little violent, but totally captivating and engrossing for even South Central kids. it also got me thinking about the curious nature of stories and mythology.

i never took a mythology class in high school - i was too busy taking AP Psych and Stats in preparation for what i thought would be a career in psychology - but a lot of my high school friends did. i remember seeing this book a lot in the cafeteria:

in retrospect, i wish i had taken time to study mythology in greater depth. my Greek/Roman history is real shaky, but i've always been fascinated by the stories in their mythology, and how they seem to bleed and blur the lines of historical fact and fiction. i appreciate how imbued Greek history is with myth and vice versa. the same can be said of Biblical history as well, i suppose. it's fascinating to me how blurry the lines between "myth" and "history" are.

this was especially tangible on ben's and my travels through Turkey a few summers ago. for example, we visited the modern day Çanakkale, the purported site of ancient Troy. there were historical sites and landmarks all over that place, juxtaposed with trappings of modern life. case in point: ben is enjoying some Turkish ice cream beside the wooden horse from the movie Troy (yes, that really awful one with Brad Pitt).

in another part of Turkey (one which we did not personally visit), the existence of a "weeping" rock formation gives credo to the ancient myth about Niobe, whose hubris offended the gods and caused them to punish her by murdering all 14 of her sons and daughters and turning her to stone. the "Weeping Rock" in Turkey, amazingly, weeps rainwater through its porous surface, and resembles the face of a woman.

it at once fascinates me to the point of glee and confuses me to the point of irritability, the way history and myth blend together, making it unclear to me what magic is possible and believable because it happened, and what magic is imagined lore made truth thru centuries of faith. because if i am to believe the Trojan War really happened, that means Zeus and Achilles and etc. were real too, right? and if that's so, what's to say all the other wonders of the ancient world weren't also, at some point, real?

it's blowing my mind a little bit.

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